Marching Through A Novel

John Updike

‘Marching Through a Novel’ by John Updike is an allegorical narrative about the dynamic between a writer and their characters and the effect of rigid characterization on a novel. The poem uses strong military imagery to urge readers to view characters in a novel as real human beings.

John Updike

Nationality: American

John Updike was an American novelist who also worked as an art critic and short-story writer.

His novels include Rabbit, Run, and Rabbit Redux.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Good character development is not forced.

Speaker: John Updike

Emotions Evoked: Excitement, Hopelessness, Passion

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Marching Through a Novel' by John Updike is an allegorical poem about character development and its importance in writing a novel. Through the poem, Updike advises potential writers and writers to not force character development like the speaker as that ruins one's writing.

Marching Through a Novelby John Updike is a poem portraying a speaker cum author who, despite their self-proclaimed love for the characters they create, deems it fit to control them until the novel’s completed ruthlessly.

It is a clever allegory describing the ups and downs of the writing process, thereby making it particularly endearing and relatable to writers. This is unsurprising, considering the poet Updike was a novelist as well.


Marching Through a Novel‘ by John Updike is an allegorical poem telling of the writing process, specifically regarding characterization, from an author’s perspective.

Updike’s ‘Marching Through a Novel’ describes how the speaker, most likely Updike himself, controls his characters while writing his novel. The speaker likens this treatment to a military march, which he, as the “general and quartermaster,” orders routinely. He relates to readers how tired his characters are under his control but nonetheless chooses to submit to him day after day until he completes his novel.

Using their circumstances, Updike breathes life into these characters, who are usually merely instruments to drive the novel forward. Later in the poem, the speaker reveals his character’s reasons for submitting to him in the hope that the speaker would spare them.

The speaker admits to manhandling his characters and even describes the various ways in which he manhandles them. However, he also implies that this course of action is his only option to create a novel. In the end, despite the speaker’s actions, he claims to love his characters.

Marching Through a Novel’ portrays an unhealthy dynamic between a novelist and his characters.


Updike’s ‘Marching Through a Novel’ is a single-stanza poem comprising 30 lines. It is a free verse; therefore, it has no consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The nature of the poem’s form is representative of the nearly erratic process of writing and the speaker cum novelist’s internal conflict as it regards his treatment of his characters.

Marching Through a Novel’ maintains a rhythm and pacing by using mostly monosyllabic words and lines of similar length. The syllabic count per line overall ranges from five to nine syllables. The line length and rhythm make for a steadily paced poem, similar to the steady march of military soldiers to which the persona’s characters are implicitly compared.

Literary Devices

  • Allegory: The entire poem is an allegory. Updike uses a narrative of a writer writing a novel to warn potential writers and writers about the ups and downs of the writing process. He also uses the poem to stimulate the readers’ thoughts and feelings for characters in a novel.
  • Imagery: Imagery in the poem centers around the workings of the military. The poet effectively uses military terminology and commands to paint a vivid picture of the character’s plight and the speaker’s ruthlessness.
  • Parallelism: This literary device is most evident between lines 21-30. The lines beginning with “and some…” take on a similar grammatical structure. Other instances of parallelism are scattered throughout the poem. They help establish the poem’s sense of rhythm.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration appears in line 11 with the phrase “…deed’s done,” and in line 28 with the phrase “poor puffs.”
  • Oxymoron: “Dazzling quicksand” (line 5) is the most notable example of oxymoron in the poem. It captures the excitement and anxiety involved in writing a novel.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-6

Each morning my characters
greet me with misty faces
willing, though chilled, to muster
for another day’s progress
through dazzling quicksand,
the march of blank paper.

At the beginning, the speaker subtly introduces two perspectives on the prospect of writing a novel. One of them is his, the novelist’s. His is more commonly voiced by many authors in today’s world. This point of view is most apparent in lines 4-6. In line 6, the speaker makes it known that he has not written a word, yet in line 4, he says his project is progressing.

The oxymoron in line 5, “dazzling quicksand,” captures the part elation and part turmoil writers often feel when beginning a writing project. Normally, quicksand is not something anyone would describe as “dazzling.” Yet, the writer sees it as such, thereby indicating how elated he is to start his writing.

The second point of view is one not commonly heard of in the literary world. It is the perspective of the characters the novelist uses to “march” through “dazzling quicksand.” Updike immediately captures his audience by introducing this unexpected perspective. The speaker introduces characters that are tired, even broken. Yet, the speaker describes them as “willing” to march.

This opening forms a thought in readers, the thought of studying the characters not just as elements of a story but humans as real as the novelist who created them.

Lines 7-11

With instant obedience
to suit the deed’s done.

These lines reveal the ways through which a novelist exercises control over their characters. In these lines, the speaker or novelist mentions a few examples of this, like changing a character’s speech pattern and assigning a motive to a character. This strikes the right chord for writers who relate to the speaker’s manipulation of his characters. However, it also calls into question the willingness of the characters.

In previous lines, the speaker mentioned the characters were willing to play their part in the creation of the speaker’s novel. However, the commanding tone and speedy changes depicted in these lines are akin to military rulings, which have less of an individualistic will it.

The picture of a “march” referred to in previous lines also contributes to this military imagery. In addition, readers must take into account the fact that it was the novelist who spoke for his characters when he said they were willing. All these factors combined make one doubt the willingness of the characters. Regardless, the speaker taking the voice of the characters leads readers to focus on them.

Lines 12-20

They extend skeletal arms
I do what l can for them,
but it is not enough.

In these lines, ‘Marching Through a Novel’ details the condition of the characters, thereby making it more obvious that the novelist has taken their will. Today, some authors say that the characters they create have a life of their own and navigate the direction of the author’s story by virtue of their characterization.

This novelist, however, thinks differently. Using the word “handcuffs” shows the novelist’s determination to control his characters while claiming they have their will. These lines clear the military references with words like “general and quartermaster,” eliminating the speaker’s claim of free will. Readers are also inclined to feel for the characters, considering their tacit plea for the speaker’s benevolence.

At this point, an author may begin to question if having an iron grip on one’s character is the right thing to do. Updike does not state explicitly if this is right or wrong. However, the word “contrivance,” which implies something artificial, may lead readers, among whom are writers, to believe strong-arming one’s characters leads to artificiality in a novel. One of the best things about novels, however, is that they are meant to be realistic.

Lines 21-30

Forward is my order,
though I march them to finish them off.

These last lines capture the speaker’s ruthlessness and delusion. In many ways, it also shows how all-consuming the writing process can be. Many authors throughout history have mentioned how focused they are when writing that nothing but the goal of finishing their novel matters.

This novelist portrays that same level of focus, albeit misguided; Updike shows readers the effect of that focus on the novelist’s characters. Apparently, this also affects the novel as a whole. Later on, the speaker refers to his novel as a “trench work of loose threads,” indicating it leaves much to be desired. Again, without explicitly mentioning it, Updike informs potential authors and authors among readers of the consequences of strong-arming one’s characters.

The speaker’s delusion is evident in the last two lines. He claims to love his characters, but his maltreatment of them, described in lines before, eliminates this claim. Nonetheless, the speaker truly believes what he says; there is no sarcasm in his tone, hence the delusion. ‘Marching Through a Novel’ is a cautionary tale for potential writers. With this poem, Updike subtly urges readers to think of characters as real people.


What inspired ‘Marching Through a Novel?’

John Updike was a novelist as well as a poet. Therefore, one can tell from his personal way of writing the poem that its story is drawn from his experience as a writer. Like any good writer, he knew what it was like to write both realistic and less realistic works, and he was able to show the effects of the latter in ‘Marching Through a Novel.’

When and where was ‘Marching Through a Novel’ published?

Marching Through a Novel’ was first published in Updike’s poetry collection, Collected Poems 1953-1993, in the year 1993. It was republished posthumously in the collection Selected Poems in 2015.

What is the tone and mood in the poem?

The speaker’s tone overall is commanding. He clearly dominates the characters and his novel. This is notable in his orders, “Forward,” given at the end of the poem. The mood is tense. Readers are bound to feel apprehensive at the speaker’s ruthlessness and the general look of his characters. The pacing of the poem amplifies this feeling.

What are the themes explored in the poem?

Marching Through a Novel’ explores the overarching theme of writing. The dynamic between a writer and their characters is particularly examined. Through the speaker, Updike conveys the anxiety, excitement, and focus of a writer handling his craft. Updike also examines the theme of characterization and how it can go wrong. This particular theme subtly conveys the message that good characterization makes for better novels.

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Marching Through A Novel

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John Updike (poems)

John Updike

This is one of John Updike's more popular poems, although Updike's novels were more known than most of his poems. The poem has been published and reprinted a number of times, even posthumously. It has also been studied at high-level institutions. Clearly, despite Updike's leaning towards more prose, the poem is a visible mark on Updike's career as a poet.
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20th Century

This poem was first published in the 20th century, but it does not leave a significant mark on this time period. The themes explored are more universal and do not hinge on any particular movement, agenda, or history associated with the 20th century.
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Updike's 'Marching Through a Novel' is well-known and well-received in American society, particularly writers. This poem has been reprinted in a good number of websites catering to American crowds. It also continues to be studied and written about in many American tertiary institutions. Many love 'Marching Through a Novel' for its simple yet powerful depiction of the writer's journey.
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This poem is ultimately a journey, the journey of writing. Updike describes the writing process with all its joys, frustrations, and potential tendency to create an obsession. The writer cum speaker in this poem experiences all these but develops an unhealthy obsession with controlling the characters in his novel.
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This poem heavily relies on the theme of relationships to convey its message. The entire poem centers around the relationship between a writer and his characters. In the poem, readers explore the writer's controlling nature, its effect on the characters, and, eventually, the overall effect on the writer's novel.
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Excitement is briefly shown at the beginning of the poem. It is captured in the phrase from line 5, "dazzling quicksand." The writer is well aware of the frustrations in the writing process. This is what he refers to as quicksand. However, he is also aware of the joys of writing and reveals an eager anticipation to experience it, hence the word "dazzling."
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The characters in Updike's poem exude hopelessness. The poem's beginning depicts them as tired, broken beings. As the poem progresses, other qualifiers like "docile" are used to describe them. They do not have free will courtesy of the speaker's control.
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The speaker's passion for his craft is evident throughout the poem. However, it is also misguided. This is where the speaker's excitement to create a novel feeds into his obsession with manipulating his characters. Updike uses this speaker as an example; he warns readers and writers alike through the speaker's narrative that one's passion for writing is not all that is required to write a good story.
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Stripping away the allegory, Updike's poem is ultimately a guide to writing books. John Updike implicitly gives readers and writers a lesson on character development and how it can go wrong. More importantly, Updike renders a new lens through which readers can view characters in any book they read. Courtesy of this poem, readers who did not before will now view characters in novels more intimately.
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Though it is not obvious, Updike's poem advises readers and writers alike on creativity. Throughout the poem, readers see a novelist's attempt to control his own creativity and how that affects his art. By simply showing the consequences of stifling one's creativity, which is in the characters in this case, Updike advises us to let creativity be what it is: free, or at least freer.
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In many ways, 'Marching Through a Novel' shows us how much power a writer has over their work. It also shows how much power is not a good thing in the hands of a writer. Throughout the poem, Updike's speaker abuses his power over his novel and ruthlessly controls his characters for no gain.
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From the title alone, one can tell that 'Marching Through a Novel' is about writing. The entire poem focuses on the writing process, particularly as it regards character development. Updike's message and warnings revolve around the ups and downs of writing and how some elements, like characterization, can negatively affect one's writing.
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Free Verse

This poem is written in conventional free verse. As is common with all free verse poems, it has inconsistent rhyme and meter. Nonetheless, this form is deliberately chosen to accurately represent the irregularities of the writing process.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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